Note: This post was originally published on Sinostand on January 22.
Over the past two years on this blog, I’ve occasionally alluded to a big project that’s perpetually been “a few months” from completion. Well today I’m happy to announce that the project is finally finished! As a few discerning readers have already guessed, it’s a book. It’s called China’s Millennials: The Want Generation and it’s set to be published by Rowman & Littlefield on June 1st.
The book has roots back in 2007 when I began three years of working with college students in Nanjing. That was an exciting period for China, especially for its youth. The economy was still growing by double-digits each year and the upcoming Beijing Olympics signified to many Chinese that their country had reclaimed its place as a world power. Then immediately after the Olympics finished, the global financial crisis hit, sucker-punching “the West” and its supposedly superior political system. China, on the other hand, appeared to steam ahead unscathed.
In 2009 leading up to the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square suppression, a common refrain appeared in foreign media about Chinese youth of today. Unlike their idealistic predecessors, who were willing to lay down their lives for democracy, this generation was largely content with authoritarian capitalism. They’d been subdued by a combination of torrid economic growth, materialism and the government’s reemphasis on Chinese nationalism.
There was certainly a lot of truth to this narrative. As the West was struggling, there seemed a sense of inevitability that China’s return to the world’s power center was just around the corner. People were living better and better lives and the country’s rulers were triumphantly leading the nation through rough waters. The confidence young Chinese had in their country had probably never been higher.
But then cracks started surfacing. In 2010, Weibo took off and began shining light on many of China’s deeply serious problems. Meanwhile, demographics and the economy were taking a turn for the worse. There was (and remains) a growing gender imbalance, an aging population, increasingly visible environmental degradation, a slowing economy and a shrinking job market for college graduates. The gravity of these and many other problems in the eyes of China’s leadership has perhaps best been illustrated by the severe (and worsening) crackdown on dissent that Xi Jinping launched after coming to power.
Still, when the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen movement rolled around in 2014, the narrative about the politically content, materialistic and nationalistic youth was dusted off once again. But this time I wasn’t so sure. Like most things in China, there is indeed truth to that simple storyline, but the full picture is infinitely more complex. What I’ve tried to do with this book is explore some of that complexity.
Over the span of three years I traveled around China talking to a diverse set of Chinese youth born in the late 1980s and early 1990s (aka millennials) trying to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re worried about. In the book I profile youth navigating China’s education system, the workforce, contentious social issues and those who are pushing back against the status quo in various ways.
In Shenzhen I spent time speaking with factory workers and a young reporter who went undercover in Foxconn during the height of the 2010 suicide controversy. In Shandong I met a group of rural Henan youth who fell prey to an education scam that upended their already difficult lives. In Nanjing I spoke with young Christian converts about why they felt compelled to turn to religion. In Beijing, I interviewed the founder of a popular nationalistic website about his role in a nationwide uproar. In Guangzhou I spoke with environmentalists trying to contend with heavy-handed authorities. I tell the stories of young social activists, journalists, civil servants, migrant workers, jobless graduates, frustrated farmers and tech entrepreneurs (to name a few). I tried to give voice to a wide range of subjects including both urban and rural youth (the latter tend to get far less coverage than their urban counterparts).
In talking with all these young Chinese and a raft of scholars and other experts for this book, a picture started to emerge that wasn’t nearly as simple as youth being bought off by materialism and distracted by nationalism. While there were indeed many signals of contentment, political apathy and material pragmatism, there were as many stories of struggle, disillusionment, insecurity, political doubt and dissatisfaction with the way things are. Many youth appear to be pushing back—whether consciously or subconsciously—against the status quo while China’s leaders scramble to keep them in line, and increasingly, scramble to adapt when youth refuse to conform.
Pontificating about millennials has become a cottage industry in the US, with a cascade of books and columns dissecting and predicting this group’s supposed habits. I consciously tried to avoid writing a book like that. I keep the pontificating holstered and make no predictions. I just wanted to capture this moment in time and try to paint an (admittedly partial) picture of what Chinese youth are up against, and do so though their own stories. I weave these stories in with data, academic studies and commentary from sociologists, political scientists, journalists and other experts. The idea was to present compelling personal stories of young Chinese alongside their greater context at this point in history.